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Alumnus' animation prowess lands job with Disney, Dreamworks and with 'Star Wars'

Keith Sintay was an animation student at Central Michigan University in 1991. Now, he's flexing his muscles at some of the world's top film companies.

Keith Sintay poses with Star Wars memorabilia.

Keith Sintay remembers where he was and what he was doing the day he learned he had been hired by Disney as an animator. He was in his kitchen, on top of a chair, screaming the news at his wife the moment she came home from work.

“Do you know who you’re looking at,” Sintay recalled yelling at her. “You’re looking at the next Disney animation intern.”

This was in 1994. He had bested thousands of applicants for an exclusive opportunity with a handful of other promising animators.

Since then, the 1991 Central Michigan University alumnus has myriad Disney, Dreamworks and Industrial Light and Magic credits to his name including “Mulan,” "Tarzan," “Shark Tale,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” 

Keith Sintay remembers where he was and what he was doing the day he learned he had been hired by Disney as an animator. He was in his kitchen, on top of a chair, screaming the news at his wife the moment she came home from work.

“Do you know who you’re looking at,” Sintay recalled yelling at her. “You’re looking at the next Disney animation intern.”

Sintay now lives in California with his wife and four dogs, going away for a couple of months at a time to work on 3D animation and character rendering for movies. Depending on what the film in question needs, this can be anything from a couple of scenes to an entire character – like in “Rogue One” where Sintay was responsible for the animation of the Imperial droid-turned-rebel K-2SO. 

Central Michigan Life spoke with Sintay in between sketching and animating to shed some light on what the past two decades in the animation field has been like.

CM Life: As a lifetime "Star Wars" fan, you were able to do a chunk of animation on pretty key characters in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" — what was that like?

Sintay: The funny thing is, normally I hide from these "Star Wars" movies before they come out. I don't watch any trailers, no behind the scenes footage or raw footage nothing. I hid from these movies. I literally faked sick and left a (raw footage screening of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") that any fanboy or girl would have given their left arm to see.  

But a year or so later, when I was working on "Rogue One," I had no choice in the matter. I had to dive in. So I go to my computer and I end up looking at some sequences and going, 'oh wow here's the Star Destroyer, the Death Star, TIE fighters' and my smile was just so big it was magic. 

Being a fan of the movies, being able to work on one I never set out for this. I was a (2D) Disney animator who was a fan of "Star Wars." I saw the first film when it came out in theaters in 1977. And then (those two aspects of my life) just collided.

How did you break into the field of animation?

When I was younger, going to school in Michigan, I would go to the library and pick out books on how to learn how to draw. I was probably eight or nine years old, and I always wanted to make my own animated movie so I started doing flip books you do one drawing (on a page), then you turn the page and do a slightly different drawing, and a slightly different one and so on. 

When I got into Central Michigan, my first year I didn't know what my major was going to be. I knew I could draw, but I thought that was kind of a background. I didn't draw through high school and it wasn't until I saw our floor shirt for (the terrace) of Merrill (Residence) Hall that I thought, 'huh, I'd like to redraw that. That's not done very well.'  Well, (my drawing) ended up being chosen for the shirt. 

At the same time, my sister was down in Disney(land) doing the college internship program and they had internships for animation there. My sister somehow came across this book "The Illusion of Life," by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas and that's pretty much the animator's Bible. It's a thick book these two famous Disney animators wrote.

She sent that to me and it was like the proverbial lightbulb just went off. It was like the heavens opened up and I said, 'why am I studying international marketing? I could be doing this.' 

What were you looking forward to animating, if anything?

I really wanted to animate a TIE fighter. I've always had that dream, and it's one of my favorite ships. Next thing I know, they assign me this shot with hundreds of TIE fighters and it's in (one of the) trailers. It's a side view shot where you end up seeing multitudes of TIE fighters coming out of a hangar bay.

Did any of your other shots make the final cut?

There's one I did of the X-Wings shooting at stuff in the movie. I also did a number of animations for the character K-2SO. One shot I did of him also ended up making it into a trailer, where Imperial Soldiers see him walk in and (the officer) says, "may I help you?" And K2 responds: "That won't be necessary," then bonks him on the head.

That got a big laugh in the theater.

In "Rogue One," you had to digitally create deceased actor Peter Cushing for Grand Moff Tarkin and recreate a 21-year-old Carrie Fisher to play a young Princess Leia. You didn't work on his digital animation, but did any of your coworkers find it eerie or entering Uncanny Valley territory?

To tell you the truth, when you're working on something of that caliber, it becomes its own thing. You look at it like a surgeon would look at a nude body or a figure drawing. You're looking at a nude body, not as a sexual thing, but more like how would I draw the scapula or tibia or something like that.

When it comes to the digital replacement of a face, you just end up thinking of it as your job and your job is to make it as accurate as you can. I know I did it before when I worked on "Tron: Legacy" and "Beowulf." You're redesigning a face based on what their (body double) is doing so if the eyes flick, then so do Grand Moff Tarkin's.

Really, the whole movie hinged on whether people bought this or not, and I felt like a lot of people really did.

Speaking of Fisher, this was the last "Star Wars" film to be produced before her death. Did you get a chance to meet her at all in the production process?

I'm sure someone spoke to her about (the digital reanimation), but I never met her. She did have a small line at the end of the film, but (the studio) pretty much just went with old footage to reference her and a stand-in actress played her (body double) on set.

Do you remember how you felt or what you were thinking when Fisher died?

I don't usually get affected by celebrity death, but for some reason this hit me a lot harder and I did, I got choked up. The only other death that really hit me was Jackie Gleason when he died in the 80s. On a different level, it was interesting too because on social media, I was getting a lot of condolences from friends who knew I was a "Star Wars" fan. They were acting as if (Fisher) was a family member to me.

What surprised you most about working on "Rogue One"?

I had never been on a set this secretive before. If you had any hand in digitalizing (Cushing or Fisher's) characters, you were not allowed to talk about it at all. We actually had code names not just for the characters, but for the sequences they appeared in. 

So if I was talking about (Cushing's character) in public, he was known by his code name which was Mr. Hoover.

Looking back, what would you tell the little kid in the library making flip book animations?

All those cliches about 'if you can dream it, you can be it,' all of those felt so corny but they are so true. Every one of them applies to me. I could have given up so many times. But I'm living proof. I (lived in Livonia) and where I lived, I would tell people I would want to be an animator and they would freak. 

It was like sending out a message in a bottle saying 'hey, I want to do this,' and fortunately enough, I found my way.


About Jordyn Hermani

Troy senior Jordyn Hermani, Editor-in-Chief of Central Michigan Life, is a double major ...

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